Unplug in Indonesia
BY ELAINE GLUSAC — Spring 2018
y cab driver shuttles me to Singapore’s ferry docks, one hand on the wheel and the other on his iPhone, using Google Maps to search for Bawah Island, where I’m now headed. When he locates an isolated dot in the Natuna Sea between Malaysia and Borneo about 160 miles from Singapore as the terns fly, he’s puzzled.
“Why you want to go there?” he asks. “There’s nothing there.”
Precisely, if a six-island mini-archipelago in Indonesia’s largely undeveloped Anambas Islands can be considered nothing. In fact, its nowhere location is vital to its definition of luxury: an unplugged private island eco-retreat poised to use nature to nurture just 70 guests maximum in a pristine marine reserve.
“It’s an affair of the heart rather than the head,” admits Tim Hartnoll, the Singapore-based principal investor in Bawah who came across the islands originally by boat. An avid scuba diver, he says, “I came for a day and stayed for three.” Fortuitously, three weeks later, the property went up for sale and “the opportunity came for me.”
In contrast, the development of Bawah, the largest of the six islands, was six years gradual with the aim of removing as little of the vegetation as possible, framing bungalows in sustainable bamboo, and building pathways using locally quarried rock, all accomplished by hand. Though Bawah began welcoming guests in small numbers in August, construction only finished early this year when seaplanes began regular service to the island, which makes a dramatic introduction to the “middle of nowhere” — a puzzle for my cabbie, a plus for me.
After my cab-to-ferry-to-plane journey, a hero’s welcome by dozens of hand-shaking staff greets me at the end of the 690-foot-long jetty upon my arrival. Bungalows for two, some on stilts above the water, others tucked just behind the trees, flank the white sand beach that rises gently from the unruffled lagoon. Mine lies just to the left of the Grouper Bar, named for the whale-size fish sculpture made entirely of driftwood suspended from the thatch ceiling.
Four bamboo-log steps up to the porch bring me to my oceanfront bungalow, where power-controlled curtains within rise to expose the elegantly appointed bedroom to the elements (when closed, air conditioning cuts the humidity comfortably). A full bathroom includes a free-standing copper tub. In addition to their castaway appeal, guest rooms come stocked with virtually everything necessary for the beach short of sunscreen: dual poncho cover-ups, his-and-her sun hats, linen pareos, and a straw beach bag.
After I’d made the effort to reach nowhere, wilderness couldn’t be more convenient. In just a few fin kicks from shore — snorkeling gear also comes with the quarters — I swim above a vibrant marine forest with thickets of blue staghorn coral, pink bushy varieties, and other fungilike species growing in ledges. Colonies of giant clams with quivering lips in iridescent turquoise and velvety fuchsia embed in wheel-shaped pieces of reef. Fish in Technicolor schools grow larger with depth. Spritely clownfish duck in and out of pliant anemones and bright blue starfish with ropy arms casually drape their prey.
If the natural environment doesn’t manage to dissolve ties to the civilized world, Bawah’s own time zone — 30 minutes ahead of Singapore, which is an hour behind Western Indonesia — helps advance the effort. Ostensibly the clock switch perfects leisure scheduling such that sunrise at 7:30 a.m. means few are at breakfast before 9, and sunset falls at the ideal 7:30 p.m. cocktail hour.
The natural rhythms of the day make the timekeeping largely unnecessary but for being punctual to spa appointments, beginning by the beachfront infinity pool on Day One with a foot massage suggested by Adeline Blachere, director of Aura, Bawah’s wellness center. It’s a gentle introduction to a wellness program that exceeds remote-island expectations. Radiating calm, Adeline herself leads yoga classes in the spa’s expansive open-air pavilion where, in camel’s pose one day, I spot geckos scurrying overhead. Massages and facials, included in the rates, join activities such as forest trekking and paddleboarding on a wellness menu designed to use the environment as well as human hands in sensory-restoration therapy.
A symphony of toy squeaks, referee whistles, and bass-note belches composed by Bawah’s 60-some bird species resounds each morning over breakfast in the open-air dining room, Tree Tops. Its location, a little more than 100 feet uphill, puts guests close to the canopy where delicate butterflies weave loopy circuits.
Water is Bawah’s prime attraction, but its main-island trails offer an introduction to its terrestrial magic. Crickets provide a bell-ringing soundtrack in the tangled forest, and rock ledges offer panoramic perches for meditation or taking selfies, depending on your inclination.
Though the things to do on Bawah seem obvious to me — hike the interior, kayak around the main island, snorkel the reef, swim to an out island, and burn enough calories to justify the excellent four-course dinners — nothing is scripted about a stay here. I rarely see my fellow travelers, a couple from Singapore, and when I do they extol completely different diversions, including a beach drop with a picnic on one of the deserted islands. Despite its contained dimensions, Bawah’s attractions — adventurous, romantic, or relaxing — proliferate in guest-specific iterations.
No place is off-limits, including the employee village, where some 120 staffers, most from the region, reside. Here, I tour the agricultural operation — an ambitious permaculture plan to supply 80 percent of the kitchen needs — and accept a pingpong challenge. In just four days, I’ve joined a community that’s as compelling as the scenery, a surprising dimension to Bawah clearly crafted from the top.
“Hospitality is about love,” says Tom Blachere, Bawah’s general manager and husband to Adeline, “and it’s about giving without counting.”
Details: From $1,780 nightly for two, including round-trip transfers from Singapore, meals, wellness services, and laundry. bawahisland.com
WHERE TO GO NEXT?
Trips to Bawah Island begin with resort-arranged transfers from Singapore, virtually mandating spending a night or two in the city-state.
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